‘Meek’s’ a memorable journey
Kelly Reichardt makes movies scrubbed down to the simplest, most elemental gestures, and they turn a weird trick: They’re simultaneously allegorical and specific. “Old Joy’’ (2006) was about two lefty friends hiking in the woods, but it was also about the death of American progressivism. “Wendy and Lucy’’ was a girl, a dog, and a dying car, and yet it said everything that you needed to know in 2008 about the way this country eats its young.
“Meek’s Cutoff’’ stands a little further back — a century and a half, give or take. It’s a spare period piece about a band of pioneers lost in the wastelands of the Oregon High Desert, desperate to find water and slowly realizing their leader might be delusional. Stephen Meek, the grizzled mountain man leading the group, is played by that nice Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, but he’s unrecognizable under a heavy beard and heavier monomania. In Meek we can see every authority figure who drives his people over a cliff in the name of Manifest Destiny.
The real Stephen Meek led about 200 wagons up the creek in 1845; 23 emigrants died before the survivors stumbled to safety, guided in part by Native Americans of the Warm Springs tribe. “Meek’s Cutoff,’’ bounded by budgetary concerns and Reichardt’s minimalist tendencies, reduces the party to three couples: the Tetherows, Emily (Michelle Williams) and Soloman (Will Patton), compassionate and broadminded; the Gatelys, Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Thomas (Paul Dano), young, foolish, and panicky; and the Whites, William (Neal Huff) and Glory (Shirley Henderson), devout and reaching the limits of their physical endurance.
Even for a Reichardt movie, little happens at a pace 21st-century moviegoers consider their due. Told largely in long shot, it’s a painfully, beautifully slow film, which is understandable given the time, place, and situation. “Meek’s Cutoff’’ is set in a world without machines or electronic media, without any input beyond food and hope, and not enough of them, either. One windblown day follows the other as the pioneers work out the courage to stand up to their guide and he bullies them back down.
When a Native American warrior (Rod Rondeaux) is captured, he becomes an alien boogeyman to some of the settlers and a more reliable potential guide to others. Do you follow the man who claims authority or the one who embodies it? In her unforced way, Reichardt is examining a critical dichotomy in American culture, between those who respond to events with fear and superstition and those who dare a deeper faith in human nature.
Williams’s Emily Tetherow is the glowing heart of this movie and its spine, too, calmly moving into unknown territory — in terms of both terrain and trust — with the tacit support of her husband. She’s rather too good to be true, and I say that as a moviegoer who probably likes Williams too much to be objective. The actress wears the bonnet with a starchy modesty appropriate to the period but there’s still a willful modern defiance to the role. I’m not sure that’s her fault; for the first time, the director’s larger concerns are perhaps too visible between the warp and weft of character and story.
Still, there’s nothing out there remotely like “Meek’s Cutoff,’’ for which some viewers may be thankful. The ending seems calculated to drive the literal-minded screaming out of the theater and yet it’s the only possible way out, our pioneers paused in uncertainty at the fork in the trail of national character. Which direction will they take? Which new road brings us home?